Sunday, June 17, 2018
I'm not much on heroes. They invariably disappoint me.
But, at least for the ten-ish years that I "knew" him from his books and his "Parts Unknown" and "No Reservations" series, Anthony Bourdain seemed worthy of the title.
The guy was punk rock to his core: "Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have."
His "fuck the chains; eat local" mantra was great advice. Quotes like "to me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living" hit my paleo-ish/real-food heart right in the feels. I can't tell you how many times I've made the more-adventurous food choice -- heading for the nasty bits usually, like sweetbreads -- because Tony Bourdain urged us all to stop being so fucking boring with food.
Bourdain's near-constant touting of local (to the episode) musicians and artists was not just doing a solid for those folks, but indicative of an appreciation for the grittier aspects of art and music that made me always wish I could shoot the proverbial shit with him, preferably over drinks and hunks of meat. For godssakes, he had Mark Lanegan sing lead on the theme song. I felt like we dug the same stuff. His magic was in making a lot of people think exactly the same thing.
He was gloriously judgmental in his non-judgmental-ness (or was it the other way around?): "Assume the worst. About everybody. But don't let this poisoned outlook affect your job performance. Let it all roll off your back. Ignore it. Be amused by what you see and suspect. Just because someone you work with is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious, and corrupt asshole shouldn't prevent you from enjoying their company, working with them, or finding them entertaining."
Tony dished casual life advice with a smirk: "Next to making a proper omelet or wiping your own ass, knowing how to roll a joint is an essential life skill for any self-respecting member of society."
But to paraphrase one of the thousand or so Twitter accounts that I read when mourning his sudden death, Anthony Bourdain's greatest accomplishment by far was to try to make white-majority Americans less afraid of people that don't look like them. That approach obviously only succeeded to a point -- take a look at the festering nativist carbuncle that we elected as president if you think otherwise -- but it could make a person think. Hard. And lots of us did.
His LA episode wasn't about the sunshine or the glitz. It was about the vibrancy of the Latino community, in and out of the restaurant world. The Beirut episode somehow embraced all the contradiction of that war-torn spot and made it glow with beauty amidst the conflict. In the Bronx, he interviewed hip-hop legends and local artists. In New Mexico, he embraced the mishmash of many cultures. And in Lagos a white dude from NYC taught us about Nigerian garage rock.
This is the description of the Houston episode on Wikipedia: "Tony showcases the extreme ethnic diversity of Houston, Texas. Anthony visits the Little India neighborhood; attends a quinceañera, meets with refugee students at Lee High School, as well as the principal, himself a former Vietnamese refugee; explores African-American 'slab' car culture with rapper Slim Thug; meets Vietnamese fishermen and Congolese farmers; and attends an Indian cricket game."
Notably, no episodes would have fit the description: "Tony hangs out only with privileged white people, doing privileged-white-people things, eating at cookie-cutter chain establishments, and acting like a superstar."
He brought diversity into our lives with an equal helping of empathy. He made you question your choices and your values: about food, about music, about friends, about world leaders and politicians. About life.
I'm not much of a TV guy -- for no reason other than I don't particularly sit still well while staring straight ahead without being involved in a dialogue. (Why do you think I force myself to meditate, hmmm?) But Tony Bourdain -- particularly on Parts Unknown -- was a big exception to that rule. I have my DVR set to record very very little, but it's been recording every single episode of Parts Unknown for a while now. Bourdain has been, and still will be, my default choice for an hour of unrelentingly interesting television.
Sure, I'm sad that I never met him, but I'm really upset that the world lost his voice. The brotherhood and sisterhood of iconoclasts of the restaurant world and elsewhere is down a member. The punks and the artists have lost an advocate. So have the disenfranchised, especially people of color, everywhere, whether in the back room of a New York kitchen or in a remote village in Laos.
I'm glad your pain's gone, Tony. I just wish you didn't leave with it.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Here are the closing five minutes of the Seattle episode. I'll eventually get through it without tearing up, I swear. But not yet.